Road Rage Safari

I won’t mince words, Russia lives up to its terrible driving record. Statistics show that even though there are half as many cars in Russia as in the US, there are twice as many accidents in Russia. Russians themselves seem to recognize this, and have developed a system of bumper stickers in order to broadcast exactly which kind of bad driver they are:

student driver–you may also see similar stickers with the Russian letter “Ш” which mean the same thing

female driver–while this one may be in jest, this is a serious phenomenon in Moscow (where the logo chosen to represent women is a high-heeled shoe, perhaps more apt in Russia)

driver from Chernobyl

Russians also like to pimp their rides. Not with lights, hydraulics, or spoilers, but with obnoxious (and costly) paint jobs that usually resemble poorly-executed airbrush tattoos. Here are some of my favorites:


ok that’s pretty funny

concept by your 14 year old daughter?

Hipster of the Year Award: “I would like my car painted after my favorite scene from an obscure Soviet stop-motion short film.”

In keeping with the continuing rise in temperatures, I have chosen a very special, very Soviet, and yet still quite widespread Spring-related word: субботник (subbotnik). This story of this word comprises an interesting look into the world of twentieth century Russia, and its legacy today. This is because to be [on] a subbotnik is to be someone who voluntarily goes out into the city to clean it. For free. On Saturday. Because it’s a Communist tradition.

Cубботник is derived from Суббота, or Saturday. On subbotniks, people are called into the streets with various tidying implements to get the streets and office premises cleaned. This sounds like a job for the municipal workforce or for the building’s maintenance crew, right? But oh wait, in Soviet Russia, YOU are the municipal workforce! At least on weekends.

Today it’s more of a commemorative, one-day holiday type deal. Schools take their kids out to clean the yard and classrooms. Employers get their staff out to clean the premises of factories and office buildings. Everybody is happy to do the cleaning and organizing for free on this one day in April. In most cases, a tea party or a corporate dinner may follow, to celebrate the community spirit/initiative of citizens and staff. And unless a person has been forced into a subbotnik by his or her employer (technically illegal), he or she usually feels contented and satisfied with his or her work on that day. That’s how subbotniks work in Russia today.

It was largely the same when the tradition began in 1919 during the Civil War in Russia. At that time, the new Bolshevik establishment (the Reds) were fighting against Mensheviks, royalists still loyal to the Tsar, foreign aid detachments from capitalist countries, and other disgruntled groups (the Whites). The country was utterly devastated (the Civil War pretty much picked up where WWI left off, arguably causing even more damages), but some optimists were very inspired by the promise of communism. Unlike today’s cynical, apathetic Russians, they felt responsible for their country and empowered to shape it into a model society–which included tidy public spaces.

So on April 11, 1919, answering Vladimir Lenin’s call to improve the railway service, fifteen workers from one of Moscow’s train depots returned to the workshop and moonlighted for ten hours to finished some backed-up repair projects. They finished at 6am the next day, and the records of that night stated that the work was mind-blowingly efficient and fun.

“Alright,” Lenin may have thought on reading the report, “if they loved it, everyone else will love it too. Let’s make it a subbotnik!”

About three weeks later the same railway held its first mass subbotnik that involved over 200 people. The Communist Subbotnik movement took on, and a year later Lenin called for a national subbotnik. It took place on 1 May, 1920, and involved Lenin himself, clearing the rubble in the Kremlin. We even have a ‘snapshot’ of that:

The idea of free labor was then massively exploited by Soviet propaganda. It became a big part of the Communist agenda: you had to work for free and because you were very motivated to work, and you got everything you needed in return, for free. That was the Communist master plan, and subbotniks were part of it.

Unsurprisingly, subbotniks became a communist ritual in which the true communists had to display their loyalty to the party and its ideals. Like show trials, but more child-friendly. Not participating in the voluntary working sessions meant rejecting those ideals, and that wasn’t the best way to win your girlfriend’s parents. So in no time the voluntary subbotniks became an obligatory social ritual. It was soon obvious, though, that enterprises were taking advantage of subbotniks to get some extra profit and pay a little less salary to the workers (interestingly, Communist history is largely the history of suffering workers).  But it worked ideologically, and complaining probably got you sent to the gulag (you know, for more free labor), so the tradition persisted.

And was filmed extensively. This next piece is a Soviet news film made in 1970, one of many which were designed to play before the start of a movie, like the communist version of capitalist “previews.” But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 didn’t mean that everything Soviet instantly disappeared. And the generation of managers brought up in the USSR still view subbotniks as a good way to spend their employees’ time.

Central Asians (the Mexicans of Russia) make up a significant percentage of municipal cleaning crews

Subbotniks become increasingly common beginning in April, as a form of spring cleaning. Today, 20% of Russians say they take part in subbotniks—a number to be reckoned with. It is undecided as to whether we should attribute this to the Soviet legacy, or take it as a sign that 21st century Russians are actually developing a better sense of community participation. Makes me feel guilty about not cleaning my room.

If you have spent any amount of time in the world’s most famous art museums (Louvre, Met, Prado, British Museum, Hermitage) you will know that by and large…they’re pretty similar in both intent and content. If you so desired, you could learn all about Dutch art in England, French art in Russia, or Spanish art in France, to the exclusion of the host country’s actual national art. So while visiting that museum may be an overall “cultural experience,” it is not an experience specific to the national culture in which you (hopefully) want to become immersed. This problem is especially noticeable in St. Petersburg, where tourists flock to the Hermitage and usually leave it at that, in the process overlooking Russia’s impressive and multifaceted art history.

Today I visited the Russian Museum, which exclusively displays the arts, crafts, and even architecture of Russia (and some of its former territories). It was much bigger than I expected—I was there for three hours and thought I’d seen everything, when I turned a corner and suddenly realized I’d only been in one half of the building.

While sometimes it’s fun and relaxing to just go to a museum and enjoy the art at face value, I was really glad that I’d read a cultural anthology (“Natasha’s Dance,” by Orlando Figes) before my visit. Knowledge of the paintings’ social and political contexts enriched the experience for me, and helped me to stop and take notice of certain pieces that would otherwise have meant nothing to me, and been passed by.

Since the 19th century, Russian ideas surrounding art and its purpose completely flip-flopped every few decades, and it was interesting to see this play out in the galleries. Art could be a spiritual expression of the individual’s creative genius, or a vehicle for social programs and political ideas. For example, towards the turn of the century, artists saw the concept of “art for art’s sake” as a creative liberation from the rigid dogma of politically-engaged and idea driven art that dominated the mid- to late-19th century. So you have a period of increasingly abstract work, until the Bolsheviks put the kibosh on that with the rise of socialist realism.

Of the things I saw, I recommend the 19th century Slavophile and populist art (noble peasants and rural scenes), the folk art (particularly the intricately carved bone ornaments), the socialist realist art, and the enormous canvases (Nicholas II and the Duma, Alexander Nevsky in battle, etc.) in some of the central halls.

Below are a few of my favorites:

Portrait by Serov

Meadow at the Forest Edge, by Levitan. I’m not usually one for muted nature scenes and flowers, but this painting is startlingly real. If you stand in front of it for a bit, you can feel being there—the insect noises, the flowers swaying, the wind sighing in the leaves. It was surprising.

Girl with a Dog, by Trubetskoy

Ivan the Terrible and His Son, by Repin

Bathing a Horse, by Serov

The Twilight Moon, by Levitan


Russian animation presently finds itself in a state of a deep lethargic sleep. Today’s attempts to make anything worthy are as alive as the growing nails of Lenin (although, he is regularly shaved and manicured, witnesses say).

Dozens of creatively-challenged computer-animated films and series dominate Russian children’s channels (the most popular being “Masha and the Bear“). But the lingering popularity of the old cartoons, or “мультифильми,” indicates that the new ones are unlikely to remain in the cultural memory for long. Going over the golden days of Soviet animated films, such as “Winnie the Pooh” (yes, the Russians insist that they invented it and have their own version), “Nu, pogodi” (“Hey, Just You Wait!”), “The Comeback of the Prodigal Parrot”, “A Mother for the Baby Mammoth”, I would like to share what is considered one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of animation, “Hedgehog in the Fog”–directed by Yury Norstein and written by Sergey Kozlov at Soyuzmultfilm studio in 1975.

The sound is a bit off-sync, sorry about that. But this is actually the best quality of the video out there. And besides, it’s got decent subtitles.

Though not a beloved children’s film, the cartoon (or rather, animated film—it merits the pretension) has been worshipped as the best one ever by the 140 critics from all over the world, winning the first prize at “All-time animation best 150 in Japan and Worldwide” (Tokyo, 2003). But that’s Japan, where they make anticlimactic movies about goldfish who want to become human, so don’t put that much stock into it. Some people would say “good—the film deserves it”, some would grin in surprise. The plot is nowhere near Tarantino and there is not much text in it either—that is why even if you don’t know Russian, it’s still easily accessible. I imagine I had the same impression as a native Russian speaker would have had on seeing it for the first time. For the record, the piece is not always well understood even by adult viewers in Russia.

Frankly speaking, most little kids simply aren’t fans of this short film because it’s not what you’d call kid-friendly. It is often dim and blurry, and today would merit at least a PG-13 rating. If only for its atmosphere, I still think it works. Some compare it to Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” for its observational and withdrawn nature, others see it as an manifestation of the oriental part of the Russian soul. There is a line that is widely cited, among the others, where the Hedgehog says in his melancholic and thoughtful manner: “I am the hedgehog. I have fallen into the river.” Apparently this is pure Zen meditation, although with the hedgehog setting it may provoke the cuddly compassion from the average viewer.

A lighter animated Norstein short is the Heron and the Crane, which I am also very fond of.

Service Economy

If you have ever been in a local restaurant or store here in Russia, you might have noticed something missing: customer service. No matter where you go, you’ll see grim faces (if they even bother to look up) and the feeling that you, the customer, are interrupting something. Some people blame this on the youth of capitalism here. But I don’t buy that. The generation currently working in the service industry barely remembers the nineties, much less socialism. And any visit to a Russian McDonald’s will show you that western-style service can be taught.

I don’t think the lack of western customer service was brought about by specific historical forces like Communism. From what I understand, it’s just traditional. The Russian brand of customer service is a reflection of deeply held values in the society, and we foreigners tend to interpret it as a bad attitude. Even in my icy, flinty hometown in Massachusetts, salespeople smile and interact with customers using lots of exclamation points: “Hi! Welcome to Macy’s! Let me know if there’s anything I can help you find today!” They’re almost psychotically thrilled to see you.

Not in Russia. Melancholy pervades the Russian service industry. Faces glower at you from behind desks, counters, and shelves. No one expresses a doglike joy when you walk into their establishment. But this is not a mistake, an oversight, or a lack of understanding. It is the expression of an important cultural fact: life is hard. Smiles and exclamation points won’t get you anywhere in Russia. Suffering is where it’s at. This goes back a long way. Suffering is a huge part of the Orthodox faith. It’s how you get closer to God. It’s how your soul is cleansed. It’s how Raskolnikov (and Dostoevsky, for that matter) found God.

In contemporary, secular Russia, the cult of suffering is no less prevalent. Every time I use a 500 ruble note to pay for a 300-odd ruble purchase, the cashier rummages around in her change drawer and huffs, “господи-боже-мой” (literally: “lord-my-god,” but the phrase is such a rote incantation that the English doesn’t do it justice). Women especially bond over complaints. I’ve walked in on lunch conversations made up exclusively of complaints. It becomes a game of one-upsmanship, where each participant offers a complaint even worse than the one just before. In fact, the complaining matriarch has become such a commonplace that a recent best-seller (Pavel Sanaev’s “Bury Me Behind the Molding”) features such a caricature as its main attraction. Russians recognize it as hyperbole, but nonetheless find it endearing. So it’s really no wonder that scowls are more common tha n smiles. They fit better with the culture.

How can I help you?

The bubbly optimism of western salespeople would indeed seem ridiculous here. People would take it as a sign of insanity. They certainly wouldn’t give you credit for the hard life you’ve been leading. And outside of the general grimness in attitude, the service industry does make an effort in certain areas. Even if your food in restaurants doesn’t come quick or with a smile, there’s one thing servers always attend to. They will always take away your plates and glasses as soon as you’ve eaten the last bite. Your cleared plates, used napkins, and empty glasses will fly off the table before you even see the server swooping from her perch near the bar. Sometimes you’re not even done yet. This easily confuses foreigners (especially students on a budget) who feel cheated out of that last sip of beer, or who were still using that napkin, or who wanted that sauce. But this annoyance is actually good service, just from a different cultural perspective.

According to Russian tradition you can’t put an empty bottle back on the table. This is because an empty bottle is a symbol of scarcity, and a Russian table should always be bountiful. So you have to put the empty bottle down on the floor, or back in the kitchen, or right in the trash bin. Any empty receptacle is a taboo. And it’s the same thing in restaurants. If that plate of salad stays on the table one second too long, you might never again eat at the table of plenty. Those flatware-swiping servers are really just looking out for your future.

So, yes, the service looks bad to the American eye. We don’t see the smiles and hear the chipper exclamations we’re used to. And we miss feeling like every sales person is happy to see us. But Russian service, for the most part, is not for foreigners. It’s for Russians. And these, perhaps, are the things that matter most to Russians. So maybe Russian customer service is doing great. For Russia.

Tonight we are taking the overnight train from St. Petersburg to Moscow. I have to say, if there’s one thing that works far better in Russia than in the U.S., it’s trains.

Russia has one of the biggest railway systems in the world, no matter how you measure it. With 950,000 employees, the Russian system’s workforce is second only to India’s. And its 53,000 miles of railroad beat out everyone but the U.S. Until 1993, Russia shipped more freight than anyone in the world. And it’s not just volume. It’s efficiency, punctuality, and comfort. So, if you come to Russia, take the train. It’s worth it. When they told us, “we will arrive at 8:30am” I scoffed. In the U.S., any train journey needs anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour of leeway. We got to Moscow at 8:30 on the dot.

Luckily we got to ride in higher-class accommodations (i.e., rooms of four bunks) as opposed to the third-class “platskart,” which is essentially a dorm on wheels reminiscent of those Japanese pod-hotels. I have been on trains in Western Europe, and they are quiet and clean. I have been on trains in America (private and public), and they’re late and expensive. Neither compares to the simple efficiency of Russian overnight trains. It’s one of the overlooked triumphs of Soviet engineering, and a pleasant reminder of Russia’s sometimes hidden genius.

I enjoyed watching the scenery go by when it was still light out. I’ve spent almost all of my time in Russia in cities, so I am interested in seeing rural and suburban areas–how the architecture differs in age and form, how towns are arranged,  what the countryfolk are up to, etc. One of my favorite things about trains is that buildings are often backed right up to the tracks, so you get to see the side of a building that you would never normally see (i.e., the ass-end), often complete with trash piles, secret alleys, hangout spots, or junkyards. It’s almost like spying. Perhaps my vignette from the Russian countryside was a horse standing in a rusty children’s playground.

Amnesty, Please

I recently came across this advertisement about Russia, produced by the human rights watch group Amnesty International, which seeks to point out that Russia is concealing massive human rights violations behind a veneer of bureaucratic civility.

Now, I like to think of myself as having an above-average interest in the promotion of social justice. I have also spent the past two summers living in the Republic of Georgia, which is not currently home to Russia’s biggest fans (understatement). I have also sat through the wildly entertaining mud-slinging mess created by the recent presidential elections. All things considered, I still think Amnesty needs to back the hell off. Of course Russia has issues. Of course it is a police state. Of course their legislation is unjust in many ways, especially in those fancy high-tech regulations. Of course they have very little support for small businesses. Of course there is a thriving black market. Of course the government wants to suppress the opposition—nobody wants a revolution when there is so much trouble already.

Any of the Russians I’ve spoken to since getting here (especially my professors) could go for ages about national issues, but there is this one fundamental thing that they have right, which many countries do not: they are working to make things better. When criticizing Russia, one must first remember that this country, as we know it now, has only been around since 1991. Before that there was a collapsing Soviet state with a centralized economy, stunted industrial sector, and widespread “system failure.” Russia had no previous [significant] democratic tradition, no free economy, no individually motivated civic participation, and at some points, even no basic provisions. From that to what Russia is now, is a very long way to have come. Yes, they still do have a long way to go. But if the recent elections are any indication, things are indeed changing.

So Amnesty, please, grow up. Changes are going to come from individuals making decisions, not from insulting smear campaigns that waste charitably-donated money. With everything else going on in the world, it’s like you have nothing else to do. Go help out with Kony 2012 or something.

While Russians typically use the Maslenitsa holiday to welcome spring, every local knows that the true indicator of impending bathing suit weather is the gradual emergence of the podsnezhniks, or snowdrops.

Your naive mental image of "snowdrop"

In fact, podsnezhnik in the local vernacular refers to cars (usually Soviet-era Ladas and Volgas) left by their owners on a roadside through the winter to rot and become buried/encrusted by mud, snow, and ice. Some of the cars make it through winter and will only need a thorough car wash to get going again. Others simply turn into scrap metal (the telltale signs of a true podsnezhnik are flat/missing tires or broken windows, indicating that it has probably been gracing the streetscape as a local landmark for some time now). For your viewing pleasure, some local podsnezhniks:

Welcome back, spring!

One of my classmates, an unreasonably dedicated fan of St. Petersburg’s football team, Zenit, organized home game seats for about half of the AIFS students (the half that regularly leaves the dorms). Although recently out of the running for the Euro Cup (or something) after a beating from Portugal’s Benfica, Zenit still has decent odds to win the Russian national championship. Today’s match was against Kuban, a region in the south. Zenit has been in a slump and nobody played particularly well, but I would still consider it a cultural experience.

First of all, learning Russian at a Zenit match is easy, because the fans rarely stop chanting. Zenit is in fact the most-fined team in Europe, not for their playing, but because its fans are so passionate as to become violent and destructive towards opposing fans/property at away-game stadiums (celebratory flares are also a favorite). Each chant usually goes through a minimum of twenty repetitions before it dies out, which provides the non-Russian speaker plenty of time to practice pronunciation and ask around for new vocabulary definitions. The most initially confusing chant of the day was “don’t forget to water your tomatoes,” a mockery of the opposing team’s rural origins.

The current stadium (easy walking distance from metro stop Sportivnaya), is a small multi-purpose stadium located on its own little island. Zenit used to have one of the highest-capacity stadiums in the world under the good ol’ days of Soviet rule, until it was eventually closed for being structurally unsound. Once again, I don’t know if we should blame the Soviet engineers or the fans—who enjoy linking arms and jumping for minutes at a time, a tradition probably brought about out of necessity, given the average temperature at an outdoor stadium in St. Petersburg. The benefit of the cold, however, is that unlike in America, your beer actually gets better as the night wears on.

Today our group visited Pavlovsk, located in the former “Tsar’s Village”—now the ridiculously quaint town of Pushkin. The palace and grounds were given as a gift from Catherine the Great to her son, Grand Duke Paul (hence “Pavlovsk,” from the Russian name Pavel, or Paul), to celebrate the birth of Paul’s heir in 1777. More facts we learned today:

  • Catherine also “gave” Paul her favorite architect, Charles Cameron, to design both the palace and the park. Cameron’s Palladian mansion (1782-6) forms the central block of today’s palace, with wings added by Paul’s own favorite architect, Vincenzo Brenna.
  • The Doric Temple of Friendship, built in 1780, represents the first use of Greek architectural forms in Russia.
  • “English gardens” were at the height of fashion in the late 18th century, inspiring Cameron’s design of a seemingly natural landscape dotted with pavilions used for informal parties, “follies” (romantic ruins based on ancient architectural styles), and decorative walking bridges over the Slavyanka River.
  • Paul and his wife traveled around Europe incognito during the palace’s initial years of construction in order to collect appropriately lavish furnishings.
  • True to contemporary architectural thought, the palace was not only to be part of the landscape, but it would incorporate the landscape into its own design. Plans were generally organized with consideration for how rooms would interact with their corresponding vistas.
  • In one of their more pointlessly spiteful moves, Nazi bombers severely damaged the palace, and some rooms are still undergoing re-stabilization. Fortunately, many of the original artifacts were saved, as they were preemptively moved offsite.

That said, our tour of the palace itself was standard Russian house-museum fare. Prompted by changing ideas about learning and the role of cultural institutions (as well as the recession’s affect on tourism), American museums responded to the public aversion for education by adopting a more “accessible” style—for example, by incorporating anecdotes about a house-museum’s former owners, like Alva Vanderbilt’s women’s rights meetings at Marble House.

Russia…doesn’t do that. I find museum tours here, particularly house-museum tours, to be much more conservative in that they tend to emphasize an artifact’s art-historical significance, without providing much other context to make it memorable. Even for a history nerd with an active interest in historic interiors, endless litanies of dates, materials, and designers begin to feel mind-numbing. This approach becomes an even more noticeable problem when the tour group is comprised largely of undergraduates with little to no knowledge of art history, architectural history, or Russian cultural movements.

Personally, I’ve had quite enough of 18th century aristocratic furnishings. Rococo (pastel floral patterns are an anathema to my soul), and the really over-the-top European Neoclassical stuff just don’t do it for me. What I really loved about Pavlovsk was its park. This time of year you can rent sleds, cross-country ski on miles (kilometres) of trails, take a ride in a troika sleigh, or fall on glare ice and almost get a concussion.